Key Biscayne police are working with the U.S. Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission this weekend to reduce the risk of accidents on the water.
The effort comes after 23-year-old Ernesto Hernandez was killed May 4, when he was helping to push a power-boat being revved by Miami radio-personality DJ Laz, after it got stuck on a sandbar in the Nixon Beach/Mashta Flats area off Key Biscayne. The greatest concern to authorities: being severely outnumbered by an “uncountable” number of boaters and not being able to address calls.
The day Hernandez was killed, authorities had trouble reaching trouble spots because of the crowd of vessels.
“We simply could not get in,” said Key Biscayne Police Chief Charles Press, who previously served on the Miami Beach Marine Patrol Unit for five years “There were calls about fighting that we could not get to — the overwhelming amount of boats created a lack of access for us.”
The chief said Nixon Beach — named after the 37th president, who had a home overlooking the pristine shallow area — is “South Beach on the water,” because of its “drink hard, party hard” reputation.
He also fears for the safety of his officers because “there's limited back-ups on water.”
Marine patrol officers will be looking for underage drinkers and narcotics users as wells as vessels with an excessive number of people on board for the boat's size. Passengers have the right to consume alcohol but not the operators. “Our goal is to be more strict with DUI enforcement and to take aggressive action,” said Press. The Coast Guard also will check if boats are adequately supplied with safety features such as life-jackets.
Charter companies like “Yacht Charters in Miami” advertise Nixon Beach as a party destination for tourists, saying: “Nixon's Cove Sandbar just south of Miami: Perfect spot to party on a yacht.” Boaters are allowed on “the flats” as they are commonly called, as long as they obey speed laws for a “no wake zone” to protect manatees.
Fifteen marine patrol units, a mix of Key Biscayne police, the Coast Guard and Fish and Wildlife were present on the weekend of Hernandez's death but Chief Press said this time around, “the departments will be dealing with their own issues and have their hands full so we'll be spread thin.” Nonetheless, Press said he's depending heavily on help from the Fish and Wildlife Commission with patrolling the area as well as the Coast Guard, especially on Sunday, which he says “will be the main day for big parties.”
Jorge Pino, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife, said that Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the summer-boating months and that the number of vessels that park next to one another during this three-day stretch is a big safety concern.
“There's no way of keeping track of the number of boaters.” When asked how many officers will be present, he said, “We never reveal the number of officers present or not present.”
Mayor Frank Caplan, during last week's Village Council meeting, said a solution needs to be found. Key Biscayne's State Representative, Jose Javier Rodriguez, called for the Fish and Wildlife Commission to “take a more active role in this...”
Last Saturday, 79 people attended a boat safety class at the Key Biscayne Community Center, which was put on by the Monica Burguera Foundation. The foundation was created after 20-year-old FIU student Monica Burguera was killed in a night-time boating accident after the Columbus Day Regatta in Miami in 2006; her friend James Noel-Pou was also killed.
“Not everyone who owns a boat knows what they're doing.” said the foundation's operations manager, Mari Novo, “so we're offering monthly “Boating 101” classes in English and Spanish to educate people on boat safety.”
Novo added, “What happened to Ernesto's family happened to Monica's family as well – what was supposed to be a day of fun turned to tragedy.”
About 20 percent of the 83 acres that comprise the Mashta Flats, which is part of the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve, are found within Key Biscayne’s jurisdiction. Mayor Caplan said, “We're frustrated with this inter-jurisdictional gap because there needs to be more control.” He added, “The party-boat situation is oppressive to residents, damaging to the ecology and hard for police to get in and out of.”
Caplan said action regarding “exclusion zones” to motorized boats along the Mashta Flats will be proposed during the next Village Council meeting on Tuesday. An ordinance can be established if the majority of council members support it over two hearings.
“We're going to do the best we can with policing,” the mayor said, “but I hope boaters will self-police as well.”